LISBON, Portugal — Serena Mancini watched Angola’s 40th anniversary celebrations this week from her home here in Portugal’s capital.
For the last 20 years, she has tried to ignore the growing economic inequalities of her homeland under the strong-arm rule of President Jose Eduardo Dos Santos, instead choosing, like many young affluent Angolans, a life of privileged self-exile.
But this year, a movement by young Angolans has forced her to turn her eyes back home and consider the Angola she wants to see in the next 40 years – a movement led by her brother Luaty Beirão.
Mr. Beirão, who held a 36-day hunger strike last month, has become the face of an unlikely call for political change in Angola that is bringing international attention to the country’s economic disparities and political repression.
They speak different languages, hold different passports, [and] they know journalists everywhere. They frighten the regime,” says António Tomás, an Angolan researcher at Stellenbosch University in South Africa.
Angola has been one of the world’s least developed countries for more than 20 years, despite its tenfold economic growth since the end of its civil war in 2002. But the economy of this oil-dependent country has been pummeled by a 60 percent drop in crude prices, hitting hard both the rich and poor and forcing the government to slash its 2015 budget by 25 percent.
With the West African nation ranking 161st out of 175 countries in Transparency International’s world corruption index, many question whether 36 years under Dos Santos, and 40 years under the ruling MPLA party, has been enough.
“Right now, everyone complains about life in Angola,” says Manuel Ennes Ferreira, an expert in African Studies at the Lisbon School of Economics and Management. “The middle class struggles to use credit cards. The businessmen can’t get credit. The poor are losing their jobs and can’t afford to buy food.”
At the forefront of this restlessness is Beirão and other well-educated, connected, and worldly children of the ruling elite and privileged families that have benefited under Dos Santos’ regime. Many are famous artists within Angola who are using their privilege and resources to publicly denounce the human rights violations of the ruling MPLA and question Dos Santos’ unwillingness to leave office.
“They speak different languages, hold different passports, [and] they know journalists everywhere. They frighten the regime,” says António Tomás, an Angolan researcher at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. “The fact that the people behind this campaign come from privileged upbringings is unprecedented.”
Even though they bring a worldly appeal and attention to the regime’s mass repression, it is not clear whether the general population sees them as change-makers or part of the same system that has endured for the last four decades.
Building local support
Despite being the son of the late João Beirão, one of Dos Santos’ closest friends, Luaty Beirão has been a long-time critic of the corruption inside Luanda’s political elite. A popular hip-hop artist, his lyrics often question the regime and have even called for the ousting of the president, creating a steady tension between him and the government over the last half-decade.
Those tensions came to a head in June, when he was arrested with 14 other activists for a public reading of anti-regime rhetoric that the government says was incendiary.
It is this arrest and the following 36-day hunger strike from prison that prompted Ms. Mancini, along with influential friends and relatives, to set up Liberdade Já! (Freedom Now!), demanding the release of the 15 activists and organizing protests in Lisbon, Brussels, and Berlin.
Most of these protests against the regime are coming from social media, outside of Angola, mobilized by people living in Portugal and England,” says Ricardo Soares de Oliveira
But while organizations like Amnesty International have taken on the cause, it is still unclear whether Angolans within the country are responding to the call to action.
“I’ve met some Angolans from the shantytowns who think [Beirão] is a spoiled brat throwing a tantrum,” says Paulo Inglês, a researcher at Leipzig University in Germany. “But some organizations in the Angolan society – some NGOs, some artistic groups – think he’s an hero. ”
Indeed, the very things that make the activists prime for international coverage could be what keeps them from connecting with the larger Angolan population, half of which live on less than $2 a day.
The Angolan government is using the group’s international nature to denounce Liberdade Ja!, claiming most of members are not real Angolans but privileged kids making noise from the outside. Many wealthy Angolans also hold Portuguese citizenship.
“Most of these protests against the regime are coming from social media, outside of Angola, mobilized by people living in Portugal and England,” says Ricardo Soares de Oliveira, an associate professor at Oxford University. “They’re somehow protected and can afford to be critical from afar. We don’t know if that is translated on the ground in Angola.”
But Mancini disagrees saying that her brother’s decision to eschew his privilege indicates his need to connect with all Angolans.
“He’s not starving but he sees those who are and cares about them,” she says. He wants the poor to have their own voice.”
For the members Liberdade Já, the biggest battles are taking place within their own families. Speaking up against the government is often embarrassing for their parents who are supporters of MPLA, says Mr. Inglês.
“If Dos Santos is questioning the sons he’s also questioning their parents and that causes a lot of divisions inside the regime”, he adds.
For Myriam Taylor, a Portuguese-Angolan actress turned businesswoman who lives in Lisbon and Amsterdam, choosing to go against the regime has led some family members who work for the government to stop communicating with her for fear of repercussions. Others, she says, silently support her.
“There are people in my family close to the regime who are questioning what’s happening and would like to speak publicly about this, but they are prisoners of conscience,” she says. “They feel they’re at risk”.
Yet there are consequences for speaking out. Ms. Taylor has been warned by relatives to be careful while walking the streets of Lisbon. Rui Sérgio Afonso, an Angolan photojournalist and friend of Beirão who lives in Luanda, says he has lost work because of his affiliations.
As for Beirão, if convicted in the trial scheduled to start Nov. 16, he could face up to 15 years in jail. Mr. Ferreira says it’s highly unlikely the 15 detainees will be acquitted.
“The regime cannot allow them to be free two years ahead of the elections,” he says. “If they’re out of jail they’ll organize protests and continue to shake things up.”